It can be bemusing to think about the tiniest of decisions and how they change the course of the world.
Thirty-years-plus-one-week ago today, the government of East Germany was struggling with the changes rocking the communist world. Mikhail Gorbachev had been trying to salvage communist rule through reform programs, which he intended to pacify the currents pushing against the Soviet system. As freedoms were granted, however, the wave of protests seem to build on them. The East German government determined that a new travel policy which seemingly offered fewer restrictions on movement between the two Germanies, without making any practical changes, would mollify critics.
On November 9th, a press conference was held to announce the new policy. For almost an hour, a party functionary droned on about the process that led up to the changes. It finally culminated in a description of a new policy, supposedly to making it easier to obtain travel permits. Realizing that there was finally something of substance, a reporter asked if this meant East Germans would be allowed to travel. Thrown off from his script, the spokesman said that it would be possible for every citizen to emigrate. He then attempted to clarify his statement by reading from the briefing, which detailed an application process. He was interrupted by another question, “When does that go into force?” Still struggling with the written statement, the party spokesman replied “Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis…” (as far as I know), reading the words “immediately” and “without delay” from his papers.
Without ever intending to, the government of East Germany had apparently declared unrestricted travel to the West. East Germans, hearing the statement broadcast, rushed to the checkpoints to see if the border crossing were, in fact, to be “immediately” opened. At the Bornholmer Straße border crossing, it fell to the passport control officer supervising the night shift to decide what to do with the masses. He had watched the press release and realized its implications, calling his superiors to receive appropriate orders. From up the chain of command, he was told that nothing had changed and it was business as usual. Facing the crowds, he knew that it was far from “usual” and demanded orders. He was finally told that he was allow the noisiest of the protestors to cross into the West but that their passports should be stamped for “no return.”
As the guards began letting people through, some wished simply to cross into West Berlin for the sake of doing it, intending simply to go an come back. One married couple did just that and then were told they were barred from returning. They had actually left behind their children, at home and asleep in the East, and begged for mercy. At that point, the supervisor decided that it would be best to simply allow two-way transit, and the border was effectively opened, at 11:30 PM on Thursday, November 9th.
Over the following days, people would freely cross the border and, in a festival-like atmosphere, the citizens of the two Germanies began physically dismantling the Berlin Wall. Within a year, East and West Germanies were no more, reunified into a single country. In less that a year-and-a-half, the Soviet Union itself would collapse. All because of a botched phrase at a press conference and an on-the-spot decision to disobey orders.